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A Brief History Of The Theatre


Roman Theatre at Verulamium, St Albans

Theatre originated about two and a half thousand years ago, developing from religious rites in ancient Greece. Songs and dances in honour of gods slowly evolved into theatre. For this to happen, as theatre historian Phyllis Hartnell has pointed out, three things were needed: actors had to speak or sing independently from a chorus praising the gods; an audience needed to be emotionally involved in a performance, without being a part of it; and finally some kind of conflict was needed to create doubt. With a ritual everyone knows what is going to happen. In a play there has to be uncertainty.

The first great theatrical age in history was that of Greece in the fifth century BC. The first plays developed out of a dithyramb, a song sung around the alter of Dionysus, god of wine, by a chorus of fifty men. In the earliest plays fifty men were still present, and the alter of Dionysus was still centre stage - as it is at the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens today. For theatre to develop someone had to step out of the chorus and start acting independently. This crucial step, it is thought, was first made by a man called Thespis. Thespis was the first man to win a prize at a newly established dramatic festival, known as the City of Dionysia. He was also the first unsanctified person who dared to assume the character of a god. Thespis is remembered today in the word thespian which is sometimes applied to actors. Thespis broke away from ritual's comforting tyranny. Chorus and independent actor could now have rows. Conflict had a presence on stage, and plays could begin.

Of the many poets who wrote for the City of Dionysia, the earliest and perhaps best was Aeschylus (525 -456BC). In his plays the development of early theatre can be followed. Seven of his eighty to ninety plays survive, and in the earliest plays there is a chorus which numbers fifty, as in the dithyramb, and only one actor. In later plays the chorus is reduced to twelve, and a second and then a third actor were added. Plays were often performed in trilogies, and The Orestia is the only example of an ancient Greek dramatic trilogy to have survived.

After Aeschylus the next best known playwright was Sophocles. Sophocles wrote plays where the chorus was less integrated into the action, and this innovation was continued by his younger contemporary Euripides, the last great writer of Greek tragedy. Euripides used a prologue, accelerated the diminishing importance of the chorus, and was sceptical in outlook. He moved theatre further from the devout conformity of religious rites where it began. His contemporaries found Euripides rather awkward, which explains his relative lack of prizes in theatre competitions. To later generations, however, he is perhaps the most easily understood writer of Greek tragedy.

Meanwhile comedy was also developing. Revels which accompanied successful harvests, and the enjoyment of life that Dionysus represented, became theatrical comedy. Aristophanes who lived between 440BC and 380BC was the best known writer of comedies. Certainly in his work the devout nature of unquestioning religious ritual has gone, replaced by satire, invective, personal criticism, buffoonery and obscenity.



Roman Theatre at Verulamium, St Albans, looking towards the stage.

Once control of theatre passed out of the hands of dramatists into those of actors the great period of Greek drama was over. Comedy became paramount, and the later easy comedy of manners with stock characters was typified by Menander (342 - 292BC). This was the type of theatre that the Romans came into contact with when they extended their empire eastwards. They then used this as a model for their own theatre. Their two main writers were Plautus and Terence. Stock characters were typically the arrogant soldier, the miser, the parasite, the identical twins, the browbeaten but resourceful slave.

Although the Romans contributed little to the history of play writing, they did change theatre design in quite a revolutionary way. Instead of building theatres on hillsides, theatres were often built on flat ground with massive surrounding walls. Some of these buildings in north Africa survive in excellent condition. There is also a partial survivor of this kind of building in Britain at the Roman Theatre in St Albans. The walls of the St Albans theatre are lost but the stage area and an area of tiered seating remains. Ironically these magnificent buildings housed a dying art. In later Roman times plays were read and quoted from but were not acted. Tastes ran more to extravagant gladiatorial battles. With the invasions of barbarian tribes which destroyed the Roman Empire, what was left of theatre was also destroyed. Theatre now returned to the rites of religious ritual, from which it had sprung in the fifth century BC.

Theatre was held in a kind of suspended animation for many centuries. Wandering bands of acrobats, dancers, singers, wrestlers, story tellers helped to preserve theatre skills. Often these groups were disapproved of and attacked by the Church. Christians were strictly forbidden to attend theatrical performances, or appear in them. What Christians did not realise was that their Church harboured the enemy in its ritual, and that theatre was eventually to be reborn out of Church ritual. In a very piecemeal fashion plays began to develop out of sung portions, known as tropes, of early Christian festivals. The trope for Easter "Quen quaeritis" consisted of a short dialogue, together with some rudimentary stage directions. It was sung by the priest in a white robe, representing the three Marys who visited Jesus on Easter morning - "Whom seek ye in the sepulchre O children of Christ?" To which is given the reply: "Jesus of Nazareth the crucified, O child of Heaven." And the priest concludes: "He is not here. He has risen as he foretold. Go announce that he is risen from the dead." (Quoted in The Theatre: A Concise History by Phyllis Hartnell). Onto this little piece of drama other speeches were added, and slowly a new drama evolved. Soon the action became too big for a church building, and it moved outside. Of course it was also probable that the new drama was becoming unpredictable, leaving behind the certainties of ritual. This meant that in many cases the new drama was forcibly ejected from church buildings. At first infant theatre was performed in the open air outside churches. An Anglo Norman twelfth century play called Adam was clearly intended to be performed outdoors, with church doors as a backdrop. From then on, theatre practised in this way became increasingly widespread, although the patchiness of progress is indicated by the history of theatre in Spain: in Spain it wasn't until the fifteenth century that there is any reference to a play being performed outside a church.

The next step was for the new homeless outdoor theatre to find a building. Some early theatre "buildings" consisted of a kind of theatre in the round, and remains of such amphitheatres can be found in Cornwall. These were based on similar continental designs. Alternatively small covered stages arranged in a line were sometimes used, with the audience moving around them. The stage directions indicate considerable technical complexity, even if the plots were simple re-enactments of Bible stories. Plots eventually started to move away from the Bible through the influence of comedy. Not surprisingly people liked a little light relief in their diet of Bible stories, and this was duly provided. Satan was typically a comic character, as were the shepherds. Demand for comic moments became steadily greater, which meant more of a "show" was being staged. The serious parts of the show then began to take on a slightly less overtly biblical character. This led on to a tradition of plays about abstract vices and virtues. These plays tended to be done in cycles, and were often known as mystery plays. Everyman is the best known.



The Globe

Then came the big moment when theatre suddenly became a great art form, and produced some of mankind's finest literature. In the first half of the sixteenth century holiday crowds were still watching re-enactments of Bible stories from pageant wagons. But then in 1552 the first English Renaissance comedy, Ralph Roister Doister, was written by a schoolmaster named Nicholas Udall for his pupils to perform. In 1562 came a Renaissance tragedy Gorbadoc written by two scholars of the Inner Temple, Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville. One act comedies were also becoming popular, deriving from comic elements in Church plays. The Play of the Weather by John Heywood is a well known example. It was people in groups playing these comic interludes who became England's first professional actors. They added to their repertoire with stories from English history. Performances were now often staged in galleried inns, such as the George in Southwark, with action taking place in a central courtyard. The inns inspired the design of theatres which were then built: John Burbage built a theatre known as "The Theatre" in Finsbury Fields in 1576. It was circular in design, the central courtyard unroofed, with galleries arranged around the sides. Then late in the following decade a young man called William Shakespeare arrived in London from Stratford Upon Avon. As a practitioner of a young, chaotic and often violent art form, Shakespeare was to be the centre of an astounding burst of creative energy. I think of this time in terms of the popular music which burst onto the scene in the second half of the twentieth century, quickly developing in sophistication to produce the masterpieces of the Beatles. Elizabethan theatre followed a similarly sudden and spectacular trajectory. In 1576 there was only one theatre: by 1599 there were a number of busy theatres, and Shakespeare's company had built its own, the Globe in Southwark, where masterpieces of world literature were being performed.

Then as suddenly as the theatre had gloriously flowered, it went into decline. By Shakespeare's death in 1616 it was really all over. Beaumont and Fletcher began a collaboration in 1608, but did not reach earlier heights. They wrote plays designed for sophisticated audiences, far removed from the boisterous crowds which had packed into the Globe. Today Shakespeare is usually presented in a very intellectual light, but in fact it was intellectualism that brought about theatre's decline, leaching away the vitality which had made Shakespearian theatre so exciting. The only major talent to emerge before the English Civil War destroyed theatre almost totally was John Webster, who wrote two lasting plays in The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi. Then came the Civil War, and the rule of Parliament, when the puritans, so powerfully portrayed in Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair, banned theatre. Many theatre buildings, including the Globe were demolished, and theatre was supressed for eighteen years. Banned performances of a sort continued at the Red Bull Theatre, but raids during performances ended with "the marching away of all the actors by soldiers, bearing their clothes on their pikes" (Cromwell, Our Chief Of Men by Antonia Frazer P465). Pieces known as "drolls" developed, short sharper performances, designed to cope with the possibility of interruption. By the time Charles II returned to the throne in 1660 nearly all the old actors were dead. It took a long time for theatre in England to recover.



Theatre Royal, Drury Lane

The centre of gravity in the world of theatre now shifted to France, where the seventeenth century saw a golden age led by Corneille, Jean Racine, and then Moliere. From 1658 when Moliere's troop performed for Louis XIV's court at the Louvre, Paris became the world's greatest theatrical city. Meanwhile in Britain Charles II had given the job of rebuilding English theatre to Thomas Killigrew and William Davenant, who had both been playwrights before 1642. Davenant was Shakespeare's godson, and if rumours are to be believed, the great man's illegitimate son. A link to the past was required, and Davenant provided this. The rumour that he was Shakespeare's biological son had basis less in reality, and more in a psychological need to link to a lost past.

The most obvious memorial to this time of rebirth is the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Thomas Killigrew formed the Kings Company and built the first Theatre Royal Drury Lane, which is, therefore, an important symbol of Britain's reinvigoration following the barren years of puritan rule. The present Theatre Royal is the third since the original opened in 1663. A backstage tour can be taken which tells the story of the theatre.

Changes, as well as a return to the past, were also a feature of theatre's rebirth in the 1660s. Theatres were now roofed, and women played women's roles for the first time. Samuel Pepys in his Diary for 1661 talks of going to see a play called Beggar's Bush. "It was very well done" apparently, and Pepys recalls that this was "the first time I ever saw women come upon the stage" (Jan 1st 1661). Talented actresses with no training, and no background in theatre, seemed to come out of nowhere. Nell Gwynne, a member of Killigrew's company was the best known of these first actresses. She retired to become a mistress of Charles II. Amongst male actors David Garrick was the most famous, and he developed a new, more natural style of acting. New playwrights started work, and a bawdy comedy of manners, known as Restoration Comedy, reached its peak in the writing of Congreve, Vanburgh, and Farquhar. Congreve's Way Of The World, was probably the best play of this period. The Theatres Royal of Bristol, Margate and Richmond all survive from the seventeenth century, and of course still carry a memorial of Charles II in their name.



Smallhythe Place, home of Ellen Terry

Following the excitement of the Restoration, Sheridan and Goldsmith in the late 1700s represented something of a high point. Goldsmith's She Stoops To Conquer, and Sheridan's The School For Scandal are still performed today, and are considered classics. But then in 1808 the theatre at Covent Garden burned to the ground, followed by the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. This was a symbolic and actual end of an era. Theatre in Britain went into another decline. Two huge theatres replaced the original Covent Garden and Drury Lane, and in a desperate bid to fill them, producers relied on clever sets and spectacle, rather than on writing. In Britain this was a time when actors, rather than writers, were the main influence. Ellen Terry, born into a theatrical family in 1847, became, with Henry Irving, the first major star of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century English stage. Ellen Terry's house, Smallhythe Place survives in Kent, and is very evocative of nineteenth century theatre. It is full of shoes, clothes, jewellery and showy stuff. Perhaps though it was music hall and light operetta which really filled the long gap between Sheridan in the eighteenth century and Oscar Wilde at the beginning of the twentieth. Music hall artistes such as Marie Lloyd maintained the vital energy of the stage, and were appreciated by T.S. Eliot amongst others. From 1875 W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, under the watchful eye of theatre promotor Robert D'Oyly Carte produced a string of hugely popular operettas. The money made from these productions allowed the building of the Savoy Theatre and Savoy Hotel. A museum dedicated to the D'Oyly Carte company can be seen at the D'Oyly Carte summer retreat at Coleton Fishacre in Devon. As for serious theatre it was necessary to look abroad during this period, to Denmark with Ibsen, Sweden with Strindberg, and Russia with Chekov. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Ibsen's most ardent disciple in Britain, George Bernard Shaw started his career, his first play Widower's Houses staged in 1892. Then at the turn of the century Oscar Wilde brought real excitement back to London theatre with his unclassifiable and brilliant comedies.



Swan Theatre, Stratford

The history of theatre following the Shakespearian age, into the Restoration, and later nineteenth century theatre, was heavily influenced by a change in theatre design. Out went the circular Elizabethan design, and in came a playhouse with a stage at one end, outlined by a picture frame border, known as a proscenium arch. Since the proscenium-arch stage was first used at the Teatro Farnese in Parma in 1628, this style of playhouse came to dominate. Plays became "realistic" in the sense that a proscenium arch was a window through which an audience would watch what Zola called "a slice of life". In place of a play like Henry V where the Prologue would transport an audience across the English Channel, writers were more limited in range. Now plays were restricted to interior scenes, played by a handful of actors. The audience meanwhile was placed in darkness. Over the 2,500 years since theatre had first emerged from religious ritual, the separation of players from audience had been a constant theme. In the early years of the twentieth century the divorce between stage and audience was almost formalised in the work of Konstantin Stanislavsky, director of the Moscow Art Theatre. He believed that actors should completely forget about the audience on the other end of that "terrible black hole of the stage" (quoted in Stanislavsky On The Art Of The Stage by David Magarshack P28). The actor's job was to search inside himself for feelings that would make his portrayal of a character sincere and real. Thoughts about the audience only got in the way of this process. Not surprisingly Stanislavsky's ideas became very influential in the training of film and television actors and actresses, where the audience as a physical entity does not exist at all. Stanislavsky's disciple Lee Strasberg became director at the famous Actors Studio in New York in 1952, and he trained many famous performers. A brief list would include Marlon Brando, Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, Sidney Poitier, Marilyn Monroe, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Al Pacino, Julia Roberts and Joanne Woodward. Such was the power of naturalistic acting in cinema and television that theatre, with its clearly artificial setting on a stage, simply could not compete. This meant that playwrights began to react against realism. The later work of Strindberg, and the plays of Sean O'Casey and Eugene O'Neill can be seen as part of this reaction. New ways of staging became fashionable. Elizabethan playhouses were recreated, at the Swan, and at the rebuilt Globe. Community theatre groups would perform anywhere, it seemed, except on a proscenium arch stage. When I was at university in the 1980s studying drama it was almost as though the poor old proscenium arch was a symbol of decadent oppression. It was up there with fox hunting and Margaret Thatcher. I toured the country watching the work of community groups, and always there was a desire to get the audience more involved. I saw a David Edgar play in Dorchester which required the audience to wander round a large church as part of the action. Being in a church emphasised the echoes with theatre's past. This play was actually rather boring, but it was an interesting return.

Theatre began when conflict was introduced into ritual. Today no fashion in theatre can settle for long without someone trying to do something else. A play like Romeo and Juliet itself becomes ritual, taught to generations of school children, played out from one generation to the next. Then the challenge is to reignite excitement, bring the uncertainty of conflict back. A famous play will stir the passions of its time, and then become a classic, playing like a ritual. To a certain extent I don't think it can be avoided. The drama of today that stirs things up, will in its turn become the ritual of tomorrow.















©2007 InfoBritain(updated 08/11)